When starting this year's American League sleeper column, I started with a list of 20 players. But then I realized that a shotgun-style spread like that isn't helpful. First of all, no one is going to be right about 20 sleepers. Tabbing that many guys has the unintended consequence of camouflaging the ones I'm seriously targeting in my drafts and auctions. So sure, I could have made cases for Corey Kluber, Jason Castro and Corey Hart, but that defeats the purpose of highlighting the sleepers in the junior circuit who really have me excited this season.
Instead of giving you a compendium, I whittled the list to five. By their very definition, sleepers are stuck in the darkness. This should help bring the following to light.
• 1B Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox -- The White Sox are being careful to not put too much on the broad shoulders of Abreu, but we didn't even make it through a full week of spring training before Robin Ventura's first Frank Thomas reference, so it's easy to see what the South Siders are hoping they have in their newest slugger. The 27-year-old Abreu figures to hit in the middle of the White Sox' lineup, and should get upwards of 500 at-bats this season. The White Sox may have a glut at the first base and DH positions, but make no mistake, Abreu's bat will find a spot in the lineup as long as he is healthy.
It's basically impossible to get useful stats from Cuba, but we know that Abreu has prodigious power. Here it is on display at the last World Baseball Classic. Abreu sits on that hanging breaking ball and absolutely tattoos it to deep left field for a grand slam.
Here he is in that same tournament, showing off his versatility as a hitter. He goes right with this fastball on the outer third, roping a laser-beam line drive to right for a double. When Ventura compared Abreu to Thomas, he said the former seems to have the latter's knack for using all fields during batting practice. The two clips above show him doing the same in game action.
Over the last three years, U.S. Cellular Field, which has a reputation for being a bandbox in the summer, has favored hitters by seven percent over a neutral park. Abreu is currently the No. 19 first baseman on FantasyPros, and that seems awfully low for a guy with 30-homer ability in this market. He'll be a top-12 first baseman by the end of the season.
• SP Scott Kazmir, Oakland A's -- After two years out of the majors because of various arm injuries, Kazmir resurrected his career with the Indians in 2013. He went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 3.36 xFIP and 162 strikeouts in 158 innings. In what may have been his last chance to stay on a major-league mound, he turned himself into a solid rotation piece, earning himself a two-year, $22 million deal from the A's. Not bad at all.
There really isn't much mystery as to how he got his career back on track. The zip on his fastball returned last season. According to Fangraphs, his average fastball velocity was 92.5 mph last year, the third-highest of his career. The last time we saw him in the majors for a significant amount of time, 2010, it was down at 90.5 mph. Not only does it make him a more effective pitcher, but also it's the best sign that his arm is as healthy as it has ever been. Now that he calls the cavernous O.Co Coliseum home, his flyball tendencies won't hurt him nearly as often as they have in the past. Kazmir will come cheap on draft day, but will be a top-50 starting pitcher before it's all said and done.
• OF Kole Calhoun, Los Angeles Angels -- The Angels knew they were getting an addition to their outfield last year that could fundamentally change the look of their offense. They just didn't realize who it was until the second half of the season.
While Josh Hamilton fell flat on his face in his first season with the Angels, Calhoun forced his way to the majors and turned himself into a starter, making the team comfortable with dealing both Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos during the winter. He hit .282/.347/.462 with eight homers, 32 RBI and a pair of steals in 222 plate appearances with the big league club. Calhoun earned his promotion after putting up big numbers at Triple-A Salt Lake, where he slashed .354/.431/.617 with 12 home runs, 49 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 274 plate appearances.
There's no reason to suspect good luck as a mitigating factor in his success. He had a .311 BABIP on the back of a 22.8-percent line-drive rate and 41.1-percent ground-ball rate. Furthermore, the power numbers are legitimate. He had 55 homers across three minor league levels in about 1,500 plate appearances. There's some buzz that he might hit leadoff for the Angels, which would be a boon to his fantasy stock. He could easily score more than 100 runs with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Hamilton hitting behind him, and a spot at the top of the order would open up more opportunities to run. Outfield is deep, and you'll be able to get Calhoun on a late-round flier. He has the upside to be a starter in 12-team mixed leagues.
• 3B Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox -- In the middle of a dream season for the Red Sox, Middlebrooks was living a nightmare. He hit .192/.228/.389 through the first three months of the season, hitting rock bottom when he got demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket. Something appeared to click for him back in the minors, though. He hit .268/.327/.464 with 10 homers in 196 plate appearances, fighting his way back to Boston. Once there, he slashed .276/.329/.476 with eight homers in just seven weeks of baseball.
With Xander Bogaerts at his natural shortstop position, there is no one to challenge Middlebrooks at the hot corner this year. The Red Sox led the league with 853 runs last year, and hit .277/.349/.446. They could once again have one of the best offenses in the majors, and while Middlebrooks will likely hit in the bottom-third, there really isn't a bad spot to be in this lineup. Third base is shallow in terms of sure things, and Middlebrooks is ranked 20th at the position at FantasyPros. That's ludicrous based on his power potential alone. He will prove himself a fantasy starter, and finish the season among the top-12 third basemen.
• SP CC Sabathia, New York Yankees -- There isn't any doubt that 2013 was Sabathia's worst season in a decade. His ERA nearly hit 5.00, he struck out the least batters per nine innings than he had since 2010 and set a new career high for home runs allowed. You can analyze his season in a few different ways, but each of those will tell you it was one he would like to forget.
However, you may not realize that it wasn't nearly as bad as you think. He had a 4.78 ERA, but his FIP was way down at 4.10, and his xFIP was an impressive 3.76. The 0.68 difference between his ERA and FIP was tied for sixth-highest in the league, suggesting a fair amount of bad luck. His average fastball velocity was a career-worst 91.1 mph, and home runs have truly become a problem. He's unlikely to reverse his velocity slide, and the gopher ball is just a fact of life for a lot of pitchers at Yankee Stadium.
Having said that, Sabathia threw more than 200 innings for the seventh consecutive season. The guy remains a workhorse, and if his ERA luck balances this year, that can be a real asset to fantasy owners. Assuming another season of 30-plus starts, Sabathia should strike out 175-185 batters to go along with decent rates across 200 innings. That makes him a whole lot more valuable than the No. 45 starting pitcher, his current ranking on FantasyPros. The bet here is that he finishes the season among the top 35.
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